Getting Their Hands Dirty

April 4, 2011

By Dean Buchan
Sting Daily

Roddy Jones was not required to spend his Saturday afternoon cleaning up an inner-city Atlanta neighborhood. Head coach Paul Johnson didn't mandate that he participate. He received no extra academic credit, not even a reprieve from wind sprints at the end of practice.

Yet, Jones and some 60 other Yellow Jacket student-athletes from several sports showed up and got their hands dirty.

Yellow Jacket football players, swimmers, divers, men's track athletes, tennis players, women's basketball players and cheerleaders joined forces to help restore and improve a piece of land used for the Bright Futures program - an organization that helps kids and their families in one of Atlanta's roughest inner-city neighborhoods. They pulled weeds, moved stones, leveled a sand volleyball court, cleaned a picnic pavilion and laid a new patio for a very appreciative group of youngsters.

When the work was done, the student-athletes played basketball and volleyball with a group of giddy kids.

These kids grow up in one of the state's poorest school districts, where crime and too-early pregnancies are way too common. The Bright Futures program has, since 2002, gotten kids off the street, providing resources for learning as well as spiritual guidance.

On streets where the "smart kids" are often ridiculed, the Bright Futures program has made learning cool. Kids who likely would never consider attending college - if they were fortunate enough to get through high school - are getting the support, education and direction they need. And many will eventually be heading to college.

When the Tech caravan arrived around 2 p.m., the Bright Futures kids were lined up to greet the Yellow Jackets.

"The kids were polite, a little shy," said Leah Thomas, Tech's Director of Total Person Support Services/Sports Dietitian. "You could tell that they have been taught to be respectful and courteous. I think they were quietly excited about getting to spend a couple of hours with 60 college student-athletes.

"They (the kids) enjoyed working side-by-side with our guys and girls in the yard. And then getting to play basketball and volleyball with them was just a bonus!"

The piece of land the Yellow Jackets helped clean on Saturday is located across the street from Ben Carson Middle School in West Atlanta's Grove Park community. The land was purchased in 2000 by Philip and Gail Ross, who wanted to make a difference in the lives of some of Atlanta's disadvantaged youth.

"Philip and Gail seemed thrilled, and a little stunned, to have so many of our student-athletes there," Thomas said. "Philip is a big Georgia Tech fan, so I think he was especially excited."

Georgia Tech student-athletes are involved in a numerous community projects throughout the year. You've read about a few, including toy drives, Special Olympics, etc., here in Sting Daily. Saturday's project, however, was part of an initiative involving student-athletes throughout the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Last fall, basketball players Deja Foster and Lance Storrs attended a meeting of the ACC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which agreed that all 12 league schools would participate in a clean-up project the first week of April to coincide with Wednesday's National Student-Athlete Day.

They called the project: Athletes Cleaning the Community, or ACC.

Foster and Storrs turned to Thomas to help identify a local project. Thomas had learned about the Bright Futures program recently and it seemed like a perfect fit.

The timing was not ideal. While Thomas reached out to all the student-athletes, the baseball team was on the road at Duke, and the softball and men's tennis teams were at Maryland. The football team was in town, of course, but after a two-hour intra-squad scrimmage Saturday morning, coupled with a beautiful sunny spring afternoon, one could understand if the Yellow Jackets opted for their couches to rest sore bodies.

Well, you could understand if this weren't Georgia Tech.

Thanks in part to some post-practice encouragement from Jones, co-president of Tech's Student-Athlete Advisory Board, 11 football players joined in the fun.

One Atlanta neighborhood is a little cleaner and there are a group of kids who are at school today, probably telling all their friends about rubbing elbows with the Yellow Jackets.

You can read more about Bright Futures here.